Blaster Master Zero - Story Matters!

Spoiler Note! I do talk about certain story elements of the Blaster Master Zero series here. I avoid the most major plot points, and tag anything notable, but if you want to go in blind, go now!

I recently treated myself to a replay of the Blaster Master Zero trilogy of games on Nintendo Switch. They're available on other modern hardware, as well as Steam, but I associate them most closely with the Switch. All three games are near and dear to my heart, and Zero 1 was among the very first Switch games I played. After all, it was one of the very first Switch games you could get back then!

Each game in this series deserves an intimate breakdown. I don't have the guts for all that just yet, so instead we'll be focusing on what I feel is the defining element of the series. The story!

It might seem a bit odd if you're unfamiliar with the Zero trilogy. The appeal of the original Blaster Master, for most folks, was the Metroid like environment and two styles of action, tank and on-foot. And the god-level Sunsoft music, of course! The story for the NES Blaster Master game was practically nonsense. Jason, and his frog, Fred, were inventions for the localized version of the Famicom's Metafight. Metafight actually features less in game story than Blaster Master, but the game's manual describes a far out future (2052...oh, jeez) where an invasion of alien mutants comes to the planet Sophia the 3rd. It's up to a young soldier named Kane Gardner, and (mostly relegated to package material) Jennifer to save the day in their tank, Metal Attacker.

What Zero 1 did so admirably was thoughtfully merge these two plots together. In Zero, a young genius named Jason on a far flung future Earth, finds a mysterious frog creature and a tank named Sophia III. Not long after, he'll meet the mysterious Eve, who bears a visual resemblance to Jennifer. Together, they'll fight off the mutant invasion that's come to Earth. Spoiler Mode! In the game's finale, it's going to be revealed that Sophia III, Sophia Zero (the Metal Attacker for the finale), and Eve were all sent to Earth by Kane Gardner and Jennifer, who are...on the planet Sophia.

Creating a unified vision was part of the Zero series' very conception. The Japanese website for Zero 1 even mentions that Metafight was called Blaster Master in other territories. This new Zero series is also called 'Blaster Master' in Japan or "ブラスターマスター ゼロ" if you need to see the Japanese. According to producer Takuya Aizu, Zero series director Satoru Nishizawa took the job of doing all this really seriously. Names like Roddy, Elfie, Jason, and the Acceleration Blast(!) were pulled from the fairly obscure PS1 release "Blaster Master, Blasting Again". Eve's name came from the American novelization of Blaster Master, where she was an added character who had a role similar to Jennifer in Metafight.

All of this shows a rather astounding amount of passion and creativity of Nishizawa and the Zero team. They were able to take old, disparate ideas and cook up something fresh, but familiar. But all of what I've mentioned above is merely the framework for an interesting and inventive plot. If the game didn't have an engaging story, wouldn't it all be for naught?

Jason and Eve are testaments to Zero's new creative direction. They are absolute treasures of characters. They've been given appealing, modern anime looks courtesy of character designer Yuji Natsume. These modern designs are delightfully rendered as pixel art in-game, resulting a charming "new-retro" look that Inti Creates does so well.

In addition to their visual appeal, Zero 1 gives Jason and Eve a strong, believable relationship, that blooms more beautifully over the course of the series. With only each other to rely on (at first!) against the mutant menace, the two grow close quickly and are determined to keep each other safe.

I can only speculate, but I'm confident in saying that the Zero series simply would not have the impassioned fanbase that it does without its fleshed out characters. Zero 1 in particular, does not have a complex or challenging narrative. But it does have lovable characters and plenty of heart, when precedent did not totally require anything beyond opening and ending cutscenes, at best. I imagine it would have been a lot simpler to not have so many dialogue scenes and stick to gameplay as the core appeal.

Instead, though, Inti Creates bothered to not only have a great story, but to rebuild the framework so that said story could shine brightly. So solid is the foundation that Zero 2 and Zero 3 all reverberate and reference events from 1, and the three games end up considerably connected. I couldn't find any information about if Zero was originally conceived as a trilogy, or intended to be expanded upon beyond one game, but it sure as hell became a damn fine series.

Zero 2 is when the story heats up and evolves into something truly special. When Eve contracts a deadly mutant infection, the clock is ticking to restore her body to usual form. Jason, heroic and resourceful, begins a planet hopping and dimension crossing journey. He's willing to do whatever it takes to save Eve. The premise here is driven by their relationship, and wisely so after the first game! Eve and Jason are what move the plot forward here, with the rest of the world and mutants in their way. After their struggle together in the first game, an invested player will care much more for the two than simply saving the Earth again.

It's a brilliant little setup that also serves as an affirmation of sorts that yes, this series is going to have a noteworthy story focus, and IntiCreates knows what makes it tick. At the very least, there must have been some recognition that many players latched onto Jason and Eve. I know I did, even before 2 stepped things up a notch. Zero 2 also introduces a smorgasbord of new characters, who are, in many ways, patterned after Jason and Eve's working partnership as Metal Attacker pilot and mechanic! By the time someone plays Zero 2, it should be quite clear that something special going on here.

Zero 3 should, ideally, be experienced spoiler-free. There are a good number of dramatic twists and turns, my favorite of which I simply must mention regardless. You may hover and click the black text to see what I mean.

The true ending of Blaster Master Zero 3......tasks players not with 100% item completion like the other two games, but with recognizing that Jason must take action in order to save Eve. Even when it feels completely hopeless and, seemingly, against her wishes. You must enter a particular button combination that you've used throughout the game during a cutscene. This is hinted at quite strongly if you get the "bad" ending, but it's an enormous amount of faith to have that the player will be this invested in the plot and connect it to a game function! It's a brilliant little way to make the player an active participant in story it at the very end.

The biggest thought I had from this replay was this: Why can't every game have a great story? Now, I won't jump the gun here. Games are art, so it would be awfully unfair to insist that every game have anime characters and cutscenes. I mean, I would be into that. I am extremely easy to persuade with anime aesthetics. But the BMZ trilogy is a much, much better series than it would have been without the story.

Here's a good example where story and storytelling can shine, even when they weren't strictly needed: Salamander County Public Television. This game is, at its heart, a minigame collection ala WarioWare with a humorous stock-photo aesthetic. It's entertaining enough with no context. But also included is a mystery of an entire county's disappearance and corporate intrigue. Yes, really! The vast majority of the game's story is told through chat windows and text to speech. The writing is quirky and speaks to real world work dynamics.

I was deathly interested in what was going on. Was this gonna take a pivot into horror? Where is everybody? Can we renew the ancient software in time? I highly recommend Vinny Vinesauce's playthrough and reactions. It's a riot, start to finish.

Sometimes, a game can have a story focus (allegedly) and fall flat. Fallout 3, in my eyes, has a god-awful plot with barely any roleplaying involved. The Mass Effect trilogy began with a sprint into something great, before completely falling apart about 10 minutes into Mass Effect 2. My beloved Metal Gear Solid really lost me by double over-elaborating on Big Boss, even though I love Kojima's storytelling and cinematic style. MGS is also famous for the disconnect between player victories and character victories. It's pretty common in that series for players to "win" some kind of scene or boss fight, only to have the character still lose or otherwise face some kind of setback. Some find this more frustrating than others.

So, it's not a given that a story will make a game better. In Mass Effect's case, it certainly made it worse. John Carmack has a famous quote. I know you've heard it, but...

"Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important,"

Okay, sure. I don't totally agree. If a story is expected to be there, if some context is mandatory, doesn't that make it pretty important? Is there any reason to ignore such a crucial element? Even something as early as 1980's Berzerk has an interesting context presented with voice lines. Just from dialogue, you learn that you're a human prisoner in some kind of robot-world, escaping for your life. The game play is arcade-y as it gets, you blast the robots and play through individual screens, but the story turns it into an exciting, movie-like chase scene!

The modern DOOM releases are, from what I can gather not having played them, not unlike BMZ. DOOM 2016 took some different elements from various incarnations of the franchise and smoothie-blendered them back together. The fact anyone bothered with dusting off the one-shot DOOM comic book is pretty interesting! Hell, the original DOOM has a great sense of story and progression, even if one ignores any text, as Doomguy's environments become more twisted and demonic on the trip to kill the Spider Mastermind.

I guess my point in yapping is this: even if a game doesn't seem intent on having any notable story, the opportunities for one are numerous, and it's probably going to emerge in some way, so why not go for it? The story matters! It doesn't necessarily have to be cutscenes, characters, and talking, but those are fine to use! Far be it for me to tell anyone exactly how they make their game. I simply do not have the authority or experience for that. But I will gladly suggest that a story of some kind is worth crafting, and that it's much more valuable in a game than one may think.

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See you next time!

- James